Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
It’s 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning and a slideshow of Paris is unravelling before my eyes: lamp-lit visions of Montmartre, beady-eyed Lotharios at the opera, bored barmaids at the Folies Bergère. ‘I know these images are on calendars and bedspreads now,’ says our lecturer Elizabeth Pink, who has picked Manet and Impressionism as this week’s topic. ‘But at the time it was like watching Netflix thrillers on your laptop. They were very revolutionary.’
Since ex CNN arts producer Kate Gordon launched London Art Studies just two years ago, the French in London have been flocking to her one-off art courses at the swanky Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge. The art is taught in groups never larger than sixteen by lecturers cherry-picked from Kate’s well-stuffed address book (a New Yorker by birth, she is also ex Sotheby’s). Past topics have included Gustav Klimt, Damien Hirst and ‘Great Tarts in Art’, a whistle-stop tour of all the famous bad girls of history from Charles II’s French mistress, Louise de Kérouaille, to Christine Keeler.
Designed to attract busy people with careers, rather than just ladies who lunch, Kate’s courses are squeezed into a tight time frame that runs from 10am to 2.30pm. They’re aimed, says Kate, at everyone from regular visitors to galleries to people with no artistic knowledge at all, a tricky balancing act that only the top speakers can pull off. Classes aren’t cheap but the joy for art lovers is that there’s no commitment. You can do a single class on a subject that tickles your fancy or sign up for three a week. Today’s class on Manet, which costs £175, comes with the added bonus of lunch cooked by Michelin-starred chef Pierre Koffmann.
When London Art Studies launched, the French were quick to sign up. Frédérique, a Kensington mother of three with a keen interest in contemporary art, soon became a regular. ‘I don’t think anything of the kind exists in France,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing that’s half way between a course and something more social. I went to the lecture about the Venice Biennale and found it really engaging. I’d never been to it but the speaker took us there literally.’
I am hoping to find fault with London Art Studies, not least because I was at school with Kate and have never quite forgiven her for being captain of the school tennis team. But I can’t. It seems to me there are few better things to do on a drizzly Thursday morning than learn about art from an expert at the top of her game and that Kate is on to a very good thing. ‘Just look at all that steam!’ says Elizabeth, pointing to Manet’s famous painting of the Gare Saint Lazare. ‘Manet’s people are just ciphers – they’re daubs of black – this is really a painting about steam!’
Soon I am vowing to read up on Mary Cassatt (what was it like to be an American female painter in Paris?), Degas (why was he so obsessed with ballerinas?) and Renoir (why is Elizabeth emphatically not a fan?). I have discovered that collapsible paint tubes changed everything and that not all of Courbet’s paintings were gloomy. I am learning about impressionist art without being bored for a single second. And, on the other side of the closed door, in a dining room filled with flowers and crisp white linen, an army of chefs, tutored by the legendary Pierre Koffmann, is busy preparing lunch for us.
Today’s group today consists of nine women and just one man, whose son bid for his two tickets in a charity auction. Although there’s a Briton or two, the room has a transatlantic glamour to it. All the women are sleek-haired and svelte with expensive boots and handbags. ‘My classes attract French, Lebanese, Egyptians, Russians and English,’ says Kate, when I quiz her later on. ‘Some are bankers or lawyers taking the day off, others are art advisors or fashion designers.’
It’s all planned down to the last detail – we are provided with pens, mineral water and headed paper and there is even a placement at the round table where lunch is served. Over asparagus risotto, chilled white wine and red berry and champagne sabayon – just inches from that table, the one where Camilla famously took Kate out for lunch and a pep talk – I get chatting to Lulu, an Englishwoman, who has travelled widely. What did she think of the Manet lecture?
‘I love the intimate group and setting,’ she says. ‘It really brings the art to life and Elizabeth has been inspirational.’
To find out more about Kate Gordon’s one-off art history courses at the Berkeley on Wilton Place, Knightsbridge (nearest tube Hyde Park Corner) call: 020 7259 5634 or email email@example.com. For a list of upcoming talks, visit London Art Studies. As well as classes at the Berkeley there are also shorter gallery visits (see below).
Gallery visits with Elizabeth Pink
May 22: guided visit of the Courtauld from 10.30-12 (cost £75)
June 9: guided visit of the Tate Modern from 10.30-12 (cost £75)
American art since World War II at the Berkeley on Tuesday, May 20
The dazzling range of art produced in America after World War II made New York the new artistic centre, replacing Paris. Ben Street is a former lecturer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I have seen 35-year-old Ben twice in action (he is also an expert on Matisse) and he is every bit as entertaining as Elizabeth Pink.
Pierre Koffmann at the Berkeley
The son of a Citroën mechanic, Pierre Koffmann was born in Tarbes in southwest France in 1948. In its day, his restaurant, La Tante Claire, was one of the best in London, and the chef one of the leading lights of his generation (A-list chefs who trained under him include Tom Aikens, Michel Roux Jr and Bruno Loubet).
Koffmann came out of retirement in 2010 to open his eponymous brasserie inside the Berkeley. Our lunch in a room filled with spectacular flower displays from McQueens was delicious and perfectly pitched, and the split-level dining room so attractive I made a mental note to go back there one day for breakfast.